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Habit vs. Willpower


I wrote last week about one of the interviews from the Future of Nutrition conference. This week, I want to share some interesting tidbits from the interview with Darya Rose, PhD, neuroscientist and self-proclaimed foodist.

The key takeaway from her interview was that the best way to improve how you eat is to develop healthy habits. She talked about dieting and how many people rely on willpower to try to change their eating habits. Rose mentioned that willpower doesn’t work, because it takes ongoing work and like any over-worked muscle will fatigue over time and you’ll slip right back into your habits.

To change a habit, you need to be able to link your actions to an end goal that is important to you. For example, if your goal is to run a marathon, create the link that fueling your body with clean, nourishing food will give you the energy that you need to train. That will help you get started, but then you will need immediate reward to reinforce the new habits. Losing weight is not immediate, so try something like getting a massage if you managed to eat breakfast or bring your lunch to work everyday that week.

Center your focus on eating healthy 80% of the time and stop associating foods as good or bad. When you categorize food this way, you’ll feel guilt when you eat something “bad” and end up resorting to willpower. Focus on being a “foodist” rather than dieting. According to Rose a foodist will not deny herself a pastry when in Paris, but a dieter would. A foodist knows that she eats healthy enough on a regular basis that one pastry is not going to be a bad thing or cause her to feel guilty.

The psychology of food is fascinating and I enjoyed listening to Rose recount some of her experiences and research that she has studied. There are hundreds of excuses that people come up with for why they don’t eat healthier. One is “I don’t have time.” The reason people perceive not having time is because anything new takes mental effort. Rose talked about the “oddball effect.” In a study where they showed a set of pictures and paused on each one for one second at a time, people thought that the one picture that was different from the others was shown for a longer period of time. We tend to go into auto-pilot when doing something that is familiar or habitual, and time will seem to pass quickly. Overtime if you integrate cooking or exercise into a habit, then they don’t seem as difficult to fit into your schedule. They will become second nature.

For people whose excuse is that they don’t like vegetables, there is typically a psychological barrier that needs to be addressed. Get to why they don’t like vegetables: what has been their experience with vegetables? Disliking a food is not in the genes, but rather related to experience and discomfort. You may need to expose yourself to the disliked vegetable more and try it prepared in different ways. For example, not all brussel sprouts are the same, and how you experienced them as a child may not represent reality. Get vegetables that are in season or try a dish at a restaurant that your friend ordered and says is great. Once you’ve tried something a few times, focus on what you enjoy. Get comfortable with natural foods. Once you get used to eating good food, what you thought you liked (unhealthy foods) will no longer taste good to you.

Rose also mentioned that most people often make up their mind before they even taste or experience something. When asking someone to try something new, don’t use the word healthy, but rather use words that make someone want to eat it such as tasty, warm, delicious, etc. If you say kale, a person’s automatic reaction or thought might be “rabbit food.” There are certain trigger words, for example the word “soy” is sometimes associated with bad texture. The way you approach the food has an impact on someone’s willingness to try and like the food. Improve the experience by describing the food with pleasurable words and avoid those trigger words such as healthy.

Another way to change your eating habits without resorting to willpower is to focus on your value system. If you start digging into the food chain and where your food comes from, your decisions become a lot easier because you begin to care. Our value system drives what we eat. For example, it’s not difficult for a vegetarian to be vegetarian, because they have made a decision based on what motivates them to eat a plant-based diet (animal cruelty, heart health, etc) – it’s not a question of willpower. Educate yourself about where your food comes from and determine your value system. I’m in agreement with Rose in recommending the documentary Food, Inc. and the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma as good places to start.

#weightloss #habit #diet

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